Massdrop + Grace Design m9XX DAC/Amp
by Michael Liang
It's All About You
The San Francisco-based company Massdrop has done it again - this time, in partnership with Grace Design on a members-only exclusive DAC/headphone amplifier, the m9XX, for $499. If you’re unfamiliar with Massdrop, here’s a quick summary:
Massdrop is a company with an online community of enthusiasts who have interests ranging from writing, quilting, tech, photography, RC cars, pro audio, audiophile, etc. Only members can see the offerings and discussions within those communities; however, membership is free. Members can create polls featuring their favorite products for others to vote on. When there is enough interest in a product (typically 200+ votes), Massdrop will negotiate with the manufacturer/distributor to get its members a reasonable discount on said product in the form of a group buy. This is called a “drop.” A drop benefits the seller because Massdrop is able to sell more units during the drop period than the seller can on its own. Products are typically sold to new customers who potentially become repeat customers. With over one million members under its belt, the exposure on the product yields higher visibility than spending money with Google Adwords. And the members, of course, benefit from the group discount. To keep the lights on, Massdrop takes a percentage of the final tally. This business model has worked quite well for buyers and sellers.
This partnership of the Massdrop + Grace Design m9XX headphone amplifier with DAC provides members with an exclusive full-featured product at an incredible value. Massdrop has done this type of partnership in the past with AKG, the K7XX audiophile headphones at $199. To say it was a success is an understatement. More than 6,000 units were sold, and this remains the most requested drop within the audiophile community.
The m9XX is a compact solid state headphone amplifier with USB DAC for hi-res music playback. The DAC chipset is an AKM AK4490 which features 256x oversampling, 32 bit processing and sample-rate compatibility of 16/44kHz (CD quality) up to 1-bit DSD128 (double DSD). This much processing power is typically reserved for higher priced DACs. The headphone amplifier section is equally impressive with up to 1030mW @32 Ohms. That’s more than a full watt of power! The m9XX can drive a wide range of headphones from 4 to 600 Ohms with an ultra-low output Z of 0.08 Ohms. Again, these are specs often found in higher priced audiophile-grade products. I’m not going to bore you with more numbers. You can geek out on the full specs shown in the drop.
Getting the m9XX lit up on my Mac was as easy as plug-and-play via a single USB cable. An audio driver is available for Windows users. I am using the Audioquest Cinnamon Micro-USB to USB cable for the best sonic performance. To activate the HP (high power) headphones' output, you’ll need to plug the m9XX into wall power with the included USB power supply. A trick I learned during the review was that you can also power the m9XX with an external battery pack such as the Anker Astro E3 10,000mAh battery. Grace Design does an incredible job with power management because the m9XX draws very little power from the battery, giving it over eight hours of HP (high power) goodness driving my beyerdynamic T1 2nd generation headphones. This trait alone makes the m9XX an excellent portable amp/DAC for the local coffee shop or on holiday. Best of all, the Anker battery doubles as a phone charger.
Grace Design has its origins in the pro audio world, and its products are often found in reputable recording studios. The m9XX has a clean, uncolored sound through my reference beyerdynamic T1 2nd generation headphones. Don’t get me wrong; it is not a dry analytical sound. The m9XX is very musical and non-fatiguing. It presents you with an unmolested sound allowing for the emotions in the music to come through, leaving your choice of headphones to do the sound customization. This is what a well-designed amplifier is supposed to do. I am thoroughly pleased with the sonic performance and features of this product. If this were not a Massdrop + Grace Design collaboration offer, the m9XX could easily fetch twice the price. It is that good!